site stats
Diversity Blog > Professional Development

Attrition Rates for First-Generation Higher Education Students and the Impact on Equality in Lifetime Earning Potential

Attrition Rates for First-Generation Higher Education Students and the Impact on Equality in Lifetime Earning Potential

By Marion Davis

In current times, the general public frequently discusses income inequality across demographic factors such as race, disability, and socioeconomic background. Within this discussion is a need to address the rising trend of poor retention rates for higher education students. With many high-paying jobs often including higher education requirements, a degree can become a key to unlock doors to a greater lifetime earning potential. 

Yet, as many undergraduate students are finding, completing a four-year degree program can be a difficult task when campus culture and course focuses have not caught up with the shifting demographics and preferences of first-generation higher education students. As of the 2020s, these first-generation college students now make up a larger percentage of college freshmen than non-first-generation students. 

Initiatives to increase student retention can create a mutually beneficial situation for both universities and undergraduates. As universities strive to analyze underlying problems for attrition and solve these, solutions that increase the retention of the growing first-generation undergraduate student population could lead to reduced income disparities across underrepresented groups. 

Equal Access to College Degree Completion as Part of the Income Inequality Solution

The growing disparity in college degree completion rates between first-generation and non-first-generation students presents a critical challenge in addressing income inequality. Obtaining a college degree can lead to significantly higher lifetime earnings compared to having only a high school diploma. However, first-generation students—who now comprise the majority of incoming freshmen—often face unique hurdles in their higher education experiences without familial support. Typically from lower-income backgrounds, these students experience higher attrition rates, particularly during the sophomore year when enthusiasm wanes and doubts intensify. The combination of unmet expectations, limited support networks, and high financial risks contributes to first-generation students leaving their programs with debt but without a degree. 

The Changing Demographics, Experiences, and Expectations of the Modern Undergraduate Student Population

First-generation college students now make up a larger percentage of college freshmen than non-first-generation students. First-generation college students tend to come from lower-income families but are less likely to graduate than non-first-generation college students who also come from lower-income families. 

In 2016, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) noted that around 37 percent of undergraduate college students were first-generation students–defined as students whose parents did not have a degree. By 2020, with the US population growing and increasing in ethnoracial diversity, the Center for First-Generation Student Success noted that 54 percent of all undergraduate college students in the US now were first-generation students. One Forbes article in 2023 put this number at 56 percent

This number typically is taken from the first year of undergraduate studies. It is by the sophomore year that attrition begins happening at higher rates, especially among first-generation students. In fact, there is a term here used in university settings of the sophomore slump where the energy and excitement that fueled students through their freshman year begins to peter out and self-doubt rises. Students from minority groups who are disproportionately represented among the first-generation student population are especially vulnerable to dropping out during this period. The element of being a first-generation student who is also a minority puts them at greater risk of attrition than non-first-generation students who come from the same background. Why this occurs has received a great deal of speculation that contradicts other speculation but limited conclusive findings from in-depth research. What is clear is that the root cause is nuanced. 

Arguably, while part of the attrition issue is the absence of a support network that has been through the same experience, another part seems to be expectations. First-generation college students will not have had parents who told them stories of their college days. Rather, first-generation college students are walking into a new environment with fresh eyes and their own expectations for how higher education will help them succeed in life.

This disconnect between old ways of teaching and new goals for learning is a major contributing factor to the current attrition rates that universities are struggling to tackle. For now, the disconnect is resulting in many first-generation students taking a great financial risk in pursuing a degree but leaving programs in their sophomore year with student debt.

The Correlation Between College Degrees and Lifetime Earnings

In data provided by the Social Security Administration (SSA), people of all genders with Bachelor’s degrees earn approximately $765,000 more in median lifetime earnings than people with a high school diploma. Furthermore, people of all genders with graduate-level degrees earn approximately $1.3 million more in median lifetime earnings than people with a high school diploma.

Equal Access to Completing Degree Programs for First-Generation College Students

Clearly, higher education can open doors to higher-paying job opportunities. However, is there equal access to a degree across all groups?

While college attendance experienced ups and downs during the pandemic, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) predicts total undergraduate enrollment to increase by nine percent from 2021 to 2031. As total enrollment increases and the undergraduate population becomes predominantly first-generation students, the attrition problem is more pronounced as only 27.4 percent of first-generation undergraduate freshmen will graduate within four years. This is a dropout rate of nearly 73 percent for first-generation undergraduate students while the dropout rate across all undergraduate students was only 40 percent

The Efficacy of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Initiatives in Equal Access to Completing Degree Programs

One frequent critique of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives is the lack of data to inform decision-making, leading to an inability to accurately identify the real issues and thereby develop customized solutions. The success of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives in universities plays a crucial role in promoting equal access to degree programs. However, the implementation and impact of these initiatives have been met with varying degrees of success. This section explores the influence of DEI initiatives and the challenges faced by public universities, as well as the educational shifts needed to adapt to the changing needs and preferences of students. 

Legislation and DEI Challenges in Public Universities

Legislation targeting DEI has especially affected public universities. Many DEI initiatives at the university level have historically included approaches such as creating safe spaces and resource groups for minority students. Yet, in 2022, before the DEI rollbacks began, minority students warned of inefficacy within diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. While 64 percent of students felt that the college or university they attended was supportive of DEI as a concept, they also felt that more needed to be done to produce tangible results. In 2022 data collected by Hanover Research in the organization’s DEI survey, 54 percent of students reported feeling singled out based on their identity within interactions in a variety of settings and by a variety of individuals from peers to professors. 

When attempting to create solutions to counter feelings of exclusion, DEI initiatives within universities often focus on creating safe spaces or sending out trigger warnings about upcoming content in course materials. Yet, do these provisions match what first-generation undergraduate students truly need? If safe spaces and trigger warnings were being offered during the height of DEI acceptance and minority student attrition rates were still high, what does this say about DEI efforts?

As one higher education article put it when discussing the importance of creating belongingness: “Sometimes even a university with the best [DEI] policy can fail to retain students from under-represented groups simply because they do not feel they belong.”

Educational Shifts and Adapting to Student Needs

What then do universities need to provide to improve student retention rates for degree completion as the first-generation student population rises in number and also attrition rates despite DEI efforts?

In many cases, people of all ages may realize they need something but not understand what they need or how to address this need. Especially for college freshmen who may be teenagers still and embarking on a new venture in life, these students will need guidance from counselors, professors, and other university support staff members to explore their needs in more depth.

While safe spaces have grown in popularity in recent years on campuses, students have overwhelmingly voiced a greater desire to be challenged in classrooms with opportunities for real-world application of their students. The rise of student disengagement in higher education correlates with the rise in the number of first-generation students who tend to be more career-focused. Students are skipping lectures now more than ever after becoming accustomed to learning online.

In one telling 2023 article from EdSurge, university students reported their reasons for skipping class as having learned to teach themselves during the pandemic and opting to learn from posted online materials rather than go through the hassle and cost of traveling to the university campus.

In the same article, a senior lecturer who had been teaching for 20 years reported her feelings on the matter, saying that the post-pandemic return to campus and students’ tendency to skip classes has defeated the entire purpose of going to college. Hinting further at the disconnect, the professor reported feeling as if many students these days do not attend colleges or universities for an education; they come for a degree. This professor stated poignantly: “And that makes me sad because getting a degree is supposed to be all about becoming educated.”

The student and professor perspectives give some insight into the situation. The students feel that they can learn faster at home than from lectures. The ability of students to teach themselves should be applauded and encouraged. This also indicates that the students do not have access to an experience within the classroom that provides enough value to encourage them to attend. The professor interviewed appears to view attendance as highly important despite not offering an educational experience unique enough from the lecture notes to entice the students to attend. She goes so far as to view students’ prioritization of obtaining a degree as efficiently as possible as “sad.” 

A more appropriate approach here could be to reinforce the value of students having learned how to teach themselves during the pandemic. An educational model that gained popularity a decade ago and is perhaps not as en vogue now is the flipped classroom model. This model asserts that giving lectures is not the best use of time when the professors and students are gathered together. Instead, students can learn at home, and active and experiential learning can then take place within the classroom with the professor present as a resource. Historically, educators faced challenges with the flipped classroom model in students not having the skills to teach themselves at home to adequately prepare for engagement in class. However, the pandemic has changed that with Gen Z possessing much greater autodidactic skills than past generations after having to learn in isolation.

If students nowadays have a higher level of autodidactic skills than previous generations and want more real-world application of skills, then this is an excellent opportunity for educators to adapt and use a flipped classroom model. Class time can be used for self-taught students to attend courses and participate in experiential learning activities that allow them to apply what they have learned in a way that will be meaningful for their future careers.

If students nowadays are more extrinsically motivated by efficiently obtaining a degree for career improvement than simply being satisfied to show up to class and listen to a lecture, then educators should recognize the value in this source of motivation and level of drive and leverage it to add more to the students’ learning experiences such as offering career skill development in the classroom on top of the academic materials learned. 

Acknowledging the Preferences of First-Generation College Students

Departing from the stereotypical party-going college student, first-generation students tend to be taking on greater financial risk in pursuing a college degree with family support. These first-generation students tend to be less interested in social interaction on campus and are highly career-focused compared to non-first-generation students who typically appreciate the ability to live on their own and socialize. These first-generation students often are balancing a full-time or part-time job alongside their studies which adds to the stress of their academic lives. 

Some journalists have speculated that the problem in the high dropout rate for first-generation college students lies partially in a lack of familial financial resources and a lack of academic preparation in high school. However, other commentaries have noted that first-generation undergraduates do tend to come from lower-income families but that non-first-generation undergraduates from the same family income bracket have higher graduation rates. Arguably, the issue is not so much about financial resources nor academic preparation but of high expectations that first-generation students may have for college as an engaging and personalized launchpad to a successful career. Non-first-generation students would likely have grown up hearing stories from their parents about late nights powering through monotonous materials on their own that may have been entirely irrelevant to their later career or listened to tales told ruefully of professors who simply graded papers as A, B, C, D in sequence without bothering to read the papers nor provide feedback.

As first-generation college students have taken institutions by storm in a rapidly rising surge, the minority has become the majority with entirely different expectations from their tertiary education experience than the traditional student. These ambitious first-generation students do not view their educational experience as a chance to get away from their parents for the first time and have the freedom to party. These first-generation students may tend to see their studies as a high-risk venture with a substantial investment of time and money with the goal of career advancement. 

As a common complaint from all college and university students, these students report feeling a lack of engagement in their studies and a lack of interaction with their instructors. These students typically state a preference of wanting more opportunities to practice real-world application of what they learn in the classroom while also having the chance to network with their professors. At the same time, professors with long careers–who may be suffering from whiplash at the sudden surge in first-generation students and the change in student needs–have reported feeling as if they do not know how to connect with their students who now tend to come from such different backgrounds compared to their own. 

For a high-stakes venture of pursuing a college degree when any spare time is needed by the first-generation college students to work to support themselves, tasks such as what take place in prerequisite courses can seem frivolous and appear to produce no yield on their investment of hours. When expectations are set high for college as a career preparation tool, the disappointment of reality can be a crushing blow. 

Solutions for Increasing Retention within the First-Generation Freshman Majority

To improve the retention rates of first-generation college students, universities must implement targeted strategies that cater to the unique needs and preferences of this growing demographic. These strategies should aim to provide additional support and opportunities for students as they navigate their college journey, especially in the critical early years. By focusing on structured networking and real-world applications in coursework, universities can create a more engaging and practical learning experience for first-generation students. This, in turn, can help address issues related to retention and ultimately contribute to a reduction in income inequality across underrepresented groups.

Provide More Structured Networking Opportunities with Professors Beginning in the Freshman Year

Creating more structured networking opportunities between students and professors can help students feel more supported and connected within the university environment. This connection can begin as early as the freshman year and can include mentoring programs, open office hours, and events designed to support relationship-building. By establishing these connections early, students can benefit from guidance on academic and career planning, as well as receive support and encouragement during their studies.

Change Course Materials to Incorporate More Real-World Application Opportunities Beginning in the Freshman Year

Course materials should be updated to provide more opportunities for real-world application starting in the freshman year. This approach can help students understand the practical implications of their studies and how these apply to their future careers.

For example, in an English composition course, rather than focusing solely on traditional literary analysis, activities could include discussions on human behavior across different historical eras and its relevance today. Students can be asked to apply what they learn in class to write persuasive essays on topics relevant to their desired career fields, using evidence and reasoning to propose change.

By incorporating real-world applications into early coursework, students may feel more engaged and motivated, increasing their likelihood of staying in school and completing their degrees.

Final Thoughts

Universities must recognize and adapt to the changing demographics of the higher education student population with an increased focus on career-oriented studies and engaging students through practical applications. By increasing the retention rates of first-generation students and by providing students with a more engaging and career-focused educational experience, universities can help bridge the wealth gap in society. A focus on retention and student engagement can empower underrepresented groups to complete their degrees, ultimately leading to greater lifetime earnings and reducing income inequality.


Marion Davis is a contributing writer at She is a disabled DEIA consultant and writes on the value of diversity and inclusion across multiple industries, specifically as relates to disability and intersectionality.